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CEO Model in Church Leadership


volume 18, number 10, March 7, 2019

“. . . I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” -Titus 1:5

CEO Model in Church Leadership

Recently James McDonald, the long time pastor and founder of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, was fired by the elders of the church for unsavory things he said on a “hot mic”. Mancow Muller, the long time disc jockey on WLS radio in Chicago, and a member of Harvest Bible Chapel, has been speaking out against excesses perpetrated by Pastor McDonald. These accusations include misuse of church money, heavy-handed leadership, and sexual harassment, among other things.  

On a February 18 radio program Mancow interviewed Anne Green, a former worship leader at Harvest Bible Chapel.[1] She said that in 2005 on a private plane (perhaps owned jointly by Bill Hybels and James McDonald) McDonald inappropriately touched her. In the interview Anne Green says, “Protect. Protect James. Alienate the victim.” Mancow responds, “Protect the cult leader, James McDonald, at all costs. And there’s a lot of great people there. I want to make that clear. But when his best friend is still in charge, and all of his other hand-picked goons, it ain’t a church. It’s a family business.” 

And before the story broke on February 14, Mancow spoke on his radio program about McDonald. That program aired January 18 and is entitled “Code of Silence.”[2] In the beginning of the interview Mancow says, “I’m a church going man. Well I used to be a church going man, but I go to Harvest Church. I don’t know if you’ve seen the headlines, but the preacher there, James McDonald, who’s a friend of mine, he gets to vote—he’s the head of the elder board—so he gets to vote whether or not he stays around. So he gets to vote whether or not he’s the head of his church.”

How does this happen? Rick Duncan, my friend and long time pastor of Cuyahoga Valley Church near Cleveland, posted on February 16 an outstanding article on FB entitled “7 Practices of Highly Successful and Deeply Hurtful Spiritual Leaders,” which deals with this sad issue very well. But I want here to address the issue in a little different way. What is our modern day tendency in the church and why? Why does this happen way too often? 

All of us, due to indwelling sin, even as believers, want to be “number one.” God never allows us to be number one. We are always in a subservient position to God and other people. Paul said that we are to consider others as more important than ourselves by looking at the example of Jesus who emptied Himself and took the form of a bondservant (Philippians 2:3-6). This tendency is what I like to call the Kabaka syndrome. The word Kabaka means King in the various languages of Uganda. The churches of Uganda, as here in the United States, are rife with pastors who wish to be the Kabaka. Even though they have a church polity which requires elders, the church rarely works with the plurality of elders. The pastor becomes the King, the Big Kahuna, the Boss, the Main Man. You get the picture. 

When this happens the pastor calls all the shots or at best, the elders listen to the pastor’s “vision” and acquiesce to it or, shall we say, rubber stamp every thing he has proposed. So the church members are not represented. Very often there is no access to the pastor, and all the decisions flow from him, and not through the elders of the church. This is terribly unhealthy and never turns out well. It’s like a man who commits adultery and after his life has fallen apart, a friend asks him, “So, did you really think this was going to work out well?” Things will not turn out well for the church which has elders who refuse to shepherd and rule in the church or who are squeezed out of their Biblical role. Sooner or later abuse will rear its ugly head and leave many damaged souls and psyches littered in the wake of the strong armed pastor or the elders who refuse to lead and shepherd the congregation.  

The Kabaka mindset has now been given credibility by many mega-church pastors and church leadership gurus. What we now have in many churches is the application of business principles entering the church of Jesus. What do I mean? We now have the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) model firmly ensconced in the church. In both the private and public sectors of our country we have CEO’s who establish the vision and direction of the company or government agency. The Board of Directors gives some guidance, but generally the CEO is the man. Increasingly the CEO model of leadership has become the way churches, both large and medium size, are run. There may be elders and deacons, and there may be large staffs of hired workers in the church, but the CEO pastor, and possibly his Executive Pastor who basically carries out the day to day operations of the Senior Pastor’s vision, runs the show. Instead of being led by elders the church becomes staff lead and event driven. That is, the actual ministry of lay people in the church slowly, but surely erodes and the members become spectators. All the major decisions and vision of the church are provided by the Pastor/CEO. The elders and staff are expected to get on board with the program. If said elders or staff have a problem with the Pastor/CEO or disagree with the direction of the church, then those “trouble makers” are expected to move on to another church where their gifts and perspective might make a better fit. 

But what does the New Testament say about this?[3] We find in Acts 13 that when Paul and Barnabas were set apart for their missionary work that the seven leaders of the church at Antioch laid hands on them, prayed for them, and sent them out under the protection and direction of that church. When the Galatian controversy arose in Acts 15 where Gentile pagans had come to faith in Christ in Galatia on Paul’s first missionary journey, the so-called Jerusalem Council was called to deal with the situation. Paul had earlier preached that salvation is a gift from God by the grace of God, through Christ Jesus, with the promise of eternal life. Nothing was said at the time concerning the need for Gentile believers to begin practicing Jewish ritual. But after Paul’s departure savage wolves came in not sparing the flock, false teachers arose, seeking to lead the new believers away from simple purity and devotion to Christ. In essence the Judaizers said to the former pagans, “It is all well and good that you are now followers of Jesus Christ, but you have not yet gone far enough. You must also become Jewish, practice Jewish ritual to the core.” This was confusing to these new believers and this false doctrine threatened to undo all that God had been doing in the Galatian region.

How was the controversy solved? Did Paul hammer out the decision from on high? Did only the apostles decide the Biblical answer to this controversy? The answer unequivocally is “NO.” The former pagan and Gentile believers were told that they should abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication, (Acts 15:29). Other than that, they were free to live out their union with Jesus Christ without succumbing to the culture of Jewish ritualism. But who told them this, and what right did they have to do so? We are told in Acts 15 that the apostles and elders made these decisions, and from there the decision was taken to the churches of Galatia and they received and submitted to the edict, further proving our Presbyterian polity. This was never a “top down” edict from one man. God used a plurality of elders, simple men, who loved and feared God to rule over His church. 

We can go further and find numerous other New Testament passages addressing the role and qualifications for elders. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul refers to overseers (the Greek word is episcopos from which we get our world Episcopal), stating the qualifications for them. Among other things, they are to be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, and able to teach. In Titus 1 Paul tells Titus that he left him in Crete so that he might set in order what remained to be done, and to appoint elders in every city. In giving the qualifications for elders (the Greek word is presbuteros, or Presbyterian) Paul refers to them as overseers, episcopos). So the two Greek words episcopos and presbuteros are used simultaneously to refer to the same office, though there is a mild distinction in each of these terms. Episcopos refers to the shepherding role of each man of God left to protect the sheep against danger. Presbuteros refers to the ruling role, like what we find in the Acts 15 passage when the Jerusalem Council was given the responsibility of leading or ruling over the people of God. 

God wisely has set up a plan to protect the church from heavy-handed Kabakas and from “yes men” who serve at the Kabaka’s bidding. It’s called a body of elders. In the Presbyterian Church we call this the Session. The CEO model is unbiblical and consequently harmful to the body of Christ. CEO Kabaka, Big Kahuna pastors need to repent and return to the plurality of elders, voted on by the church members, and ordained to the office. And these elders need to take back their God ordained role to guard the flock among which the Holy Spirit made them overseers. They are to shepherd the church of God which Christ Jesus purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28).


  1. You can read the manuscript of the interview here <> Mancow Interview: Former Worship Leader at Harvest Accuses James McDonald of Inappropriately Touching Her on Private Plane,” February 18, 2019.
  2.  You can find the manuscript at <> January 18, 2019.
  3.  I could lay this out from the Old Testament as well but do not have the space to do so here.

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